HR Q&A: Why a reference check is necessary – both before and after hiring

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Question:  Anne referred her friend John for a new IT position. Anne doesn’t work in IT, but says he is a great fit. John is hired—without reference checks—starts work and is fired three months later because he continually misses deadlines. What went wrong? Would conducting reference checks have helped prevent this hiring disaster?

Answer: It is surprising how often references are not checked.  But if you want to avoid a bad hire—and the many costs associated with that—it is a must. In December 2012, CareerBuilder conducted a survey about bad hires and  found the effects include less productivity, lost time to recruit and train another worker, cost to recruit and train, negative morale, negative client impacts, fewer sales—and even legal issues.

Plus, if you don’t conduct reference checks, you don’t know who you’re hiring: Thirty-one per cent of candidates reported lying on a résumé (Forensic Psychology) but the number may be as high as 43% (Jobacle). Candidates lied the most about: salary (27%), credentials (12%), and job responsibilities (19%).

Properly conducted, a reference check will weed out the less than honest and provide additional behavioural and performance-related information and help ensure fantastic hires.

What is a reference check? 

A reference check involves gathering employment-related information and past performance information from direct supervisors, peers, or other people (such as suppliers) who have knowledge of the candidate’s work performance. 

Reference checks can provide additional information to help make great hiring decisions. Not only do they help verify whether the candidate had similar responsibilities and roles in previous organizations, they can also verify past performance. When making a final hiring decision, the hiring manager should look at all information from the résumé, interviews, and reference checks, to make a balanced and informed decision.

Who should conduct reference checks?

Conducting reference checks is both an art and a science and should be completed by an experienced person. The science part comes from the process and using a Reference Check Questionnaire customized for the job. The art part is listening for slight hesitations and changes in tone of voice so additional probing questions can be asked that get to the root cause of that hesitation. If you expect your manager to conduct reference checks, train them and give them the tools to succeed.

How can reference checks help AFTER a person is hired?

Reference checks provide information that help the supervisor understand the best way to manage, communicate, and coach the new employee. They also provide a window into development gaps for training, and what to look for to ensure the new employee is positioned for success. For example, if a reference mentions that the individual has trouble saying “No” and often takes on too much work, and then gets stressed, you will know to ask the individual very specifically what projects they have on the go before delegating additional work.

A bad hire costs time and money. Why wouldn’t you do everything possible to prevent that? Reference checks help ensure great hires—take the time to do them properly.

Joanne Royce is founder of Royce & Associates. She is also a volunteer Executive Board Member with the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) Halton Chapter. Her twitter handle is: @joanneroyce.

This ongoing series of advice columns written by members of the The Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA). If you have a general HR question you’d like answered, e-mail it We’ll pass the questions along to HRPA for consideration as the subject of a future article.

For more specific quetions, HRPA’s EZ HR small business service connects companies with human resources information experts and provides employment practices liability insurance designed to protect businesses from employment- or discrimination-related allegations.

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